Hawaii Polls Demand a Critical Eye

It’s notoriously difficult to poll in the state, with many surveys missing the mark.

National Journal
Steven Shepard
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Steven Shepard
Feb. 18, 2014, 11:26 a.m.

This week­end’s Hon­olulu Star-Ad­vert­iser Hawaii poll brought a raft of sur­pris­ing find­ings. Ap­poin­ted Demo­crat­ic Sen. Bri­an Schatz is trail­ing Demo­crat­ic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in their closely-watched primary match­up, and Demo­crat­ic Gov. Neil Aber­crom­bie, who ap­poin­ted Schatz to the Sen­ate and was suc­ceeded in the House by Hanabusa, is los­ing to his likely GOP rival.

Just be­cause the res­ults are sur­pris­ing doesn’t mean this poll isn’t ac­cur­ate. But it does serve as a re­mind­er that poll­sters face unique chal­lenges in Hawaii.

Polling in Hawaii is no­tori­ously tricky. The Aloha State’s com­plex eth­nic melt­ing pot makes find­ing the right sample com­pos­i­tion dif­fi­cult — es­pe­cially im­port­ant when a Caucasi­an can­did­ate like Schatz or Aber­crom­bie is fa­cing an Amer­ic­an of Ja­pan­ese an­ces­try (AJA) can­did­ate like Hanabusa or Ige. Ward Re­search, the Star-Ad­vert­iser‘s poll­ster, missed the Demo­crat­ic primary in the state’s 2nd con­gres­sion­al dis­trict last cycle by a wide mar­gin.

Schatz’s cam­paign and oth­er Demo­crats dis­puted the poll, which showed Hanabusa ahead, 48 per­cent to 40 per­cent. For the primary match­ups, Demo­crats aligned with Schatz’s cam­paign poin­ted out that 82 per­cent of all the re­gistered voters sur­veyed par­ti­cip­ated in that ques­tion, even though far few­er than 82 per­cent of eli­gible re­gistered voters are likely to cast bal­lots in the primary.

Even though Schatz is the in­cum­bent, in­clud­ing un­likely voters would be­ne­fit Hanabusa, they ar­gued. As a twice-elec­ted rep­res­ent­at­ive for half the state’s res­id­ents, Hanabusa has high­er name iden­ti­fic­a­tion than Schatz. As a res­ult, lower-in­form­a­tion voters — whom the Schatz camp says are un­likely to vote but are be­ing sur­veyed in the Star-Ad­vert­iser poll — would be more likely to sup­port Hanabusa.

The Schatz cam­paign did provide some sup­port for their the­ory: They re­leased a month-old in­tern­al poll show­ing Schatz with a slim, four-point lead over Hanabusa. But, like the Star-Ad­vert­iser poll, they found Hanabusa with more name-ID, and Schatz did markedly bet­ter among voters who were fa­mil­i­ar with both can­did­ates.

In the gubernat­ori­al race, Demo­crats feel that the poll, which shows Aber­crom­bie trail­ing former Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, the man he clobbered four years ago, by eight points, is equally flawed. But even in­tern­al polling is no easy task in Hawaii: In ad­di­tion to the mix of eth­ni­cit­ies that make up the elect­or­ate, the state and oth­er out­side groups have done little work to main­tain re­cords of voters there that can be mined for in­form­a­tion about vote fre­quency and oth­er char­ac­ter­ist­ics that help poll­sters de­term­ine whom to call.

“The voter file is ter­rible. It’s in ter­rible shape,” said one Demo­crat­ic poll­ster with ex­per­i­ence in Hawaii. “Nobody’s really spent the money to make it good. So that’s a prob­lem.”

With the pro­spect of tight Sen­ate and gubernat­ori­al races, Hawaii re­mains a state to watch in 2014. But there’s reas­on to view the poll res­ults we see there with a crit­ic­al eye, and sur­veys are likely to be in­fre­quent enough to make poll av­er­ages less use­ful.

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